Director Chris Peckover makes an impressive sophomore effort with his pitch black twist on yuletide terror. While the premise is a typical setup, in which teenaged babysitter Ashley must defend a 12-year-old boy from during a terrifying home invasion, the plot proves to be anything but typical. What begins as a cute John Hughes-esque holiday tale quickly gives way into the most unpredictable, demented night for Ashley and the kid she’s been hired to look after.
Aside from brief appearances by 12-year-old Luke’s parents, played by the hilarious ad-libbing Virgina Madsen and Patrick Warburton, most of the run time is carried by its young cast. Make no mistake; though, this is not a children’s movie. Led by Olivia DeJonge (The Visit) as the responsible babysitter Ashley and Levi Miller (Pan) as the 12-year-old in love with his babysitter, this group of teenaged actors masterfully deliver a very, very dark comedy full of bite and blood.
Peckover’s direction combined with Carl Robertson’s crisp, beautiful cinematography initially lulls audiences with their picture perfect Christmas setting. The warm fuzzy holiday glow gives way to a familiar home invasion set up before Peckover completely smashes all expectations into the ground with mischievous subversion. It’s at this turning point in the plot that the film shifts from suspense to downright shock. The events become nearly too mean spirited, and the underlying pitch black humor pulls the film back from crossing over the line with how far it pushes its characters.
The core cast begin as cardboard cutouts with stereotypical roles, again lulling us into thinking we’re retreading familiar ground, but as each new insane twist is dealt, new layers are revealed about each character. Not only does it add a complexity to the already complex narrative, but it gives a sense of realism that makes these characters truly engaging. DeJonge’s arch as a typical teen girl dealing with boy drama slowly peels away to reveal an intelligent yet flawed character with rooting for. Yet its Miller’s take on Luke that proves to be the most impressive. His performance is far beyond his young years, and really solidifies this film as something special.
This film is so darkly comedic, so twisted, and teeters so close to being too mean spirited with its shocking abandon that this is a film best explored with a crowd. There’s a moment about halfway through that will likely lose some viewers, and I was nearly one of them, but Peckover and crew pull it back with a satisfying finish. It’s the type of film that delivers shocking moment after shocking moment, only stopping to punctuate with hilarious tension relief before ramping back up again. I don’t often call for sequels, but if Peckover could recapture that magic that he’s masterfully bottled here, then I demand one. There’s something almost taboo about the way this film annihilates the Christmas spirit with its yuletide terror, and it’s one that is sure to make it onto many requisite holiday viewing lists. One thing is for sure: it’s ensured that I never want to have kids.
Safe Neighborhood made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2016.
Safe Neighborhood [FF Review]